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Testing treatments

Researchers continue to hunt for a medication to battle the coronavirus

A medical laboratory scientist tests samples for COVID-19 in Jackson, Miss. Associated Press/Photo by Jay Ferchaud/The University of Mississippi Medical Center

Testing treatments

On March 21, 38-year-old Jim Santilli thought he was going to die. Lying in the hospital in Clinton Township, Mich., with COVID-19, he gasped for air and felt like he was slowly drowning. Then, an infectious disease specialist decided to give him a combination of the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine and the widely used antibiotic azithromycin.

“Within a few hours after receiving the first dose, I had a drastic improvement, almost a 180-degree turn,” Santilli told Laura Ingraham on Fox News. “I had hope at that point.”

In the frantic quest to treat COVID-19, some scientists focus on repurposing existing drugs like those Santilli received, while others explore new methods of treatment as the pressure grows to get something into doctors’ hands.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave emergency approval for patients hospitalized with COVID-19 to receive hydroxychloroquine and another anti-malarial, chloroquine. Some small studies have shown positive results from the medications. Researchers in China claimed the drugs worked but have not released their data. A large clinical trial is also underway in New York. But hydroxychloroquine may cause harmful side effects, like heart damage, said David Smith, an infectious disease physician at the University of California San Diego. “This is a warning signal, but we still need to do the trial,” he told Science magazine.

Scientists are testing other potential treatments, as well. One anti-viral drug, called favipiravir, or Avigan, showed positive results in Chinese clinical trials, The Guardian reported. Patients who received the drug tested negative for the coronavirus a week earlier on average than those who received standard treatment. But, like many anti-virals, the drug appears most effective in the earliest stages of the disease and doesn’t work as well in more severe cases.

Some doctors are trying an immunosuppressant drug approved for the treatment of rheumatoid arthritis on COVID-19 patients whose immune systems go into overdrive and attack their own tissue, which can be fatal. Roche announced on March 19 that it would start testing the drug, tocilizumab (Actemra), in early April. Another company, Regeneron, said it began a global clinical trial for a similar drug, sarilumab (Kevzara).

This month, researchers could release results from two of five large clinical studies of Gilead Sciences’ Ebola anti-viral remdesivir, Stat reported. But the medical community could have a hard time administering the drug. Because the FDA has not approved it for general use, only the sickest patients can get it by participating in clinical trials. Like most drugs used to treat infections, remdesivir likely works much better when given during the early stage of the illness, Stanley Perlman, a coronavirus researcher at the University of Iowa, told Science. But with remdesivir, he said, “you can’t do that because it’s an intravenous drug, it’s expensive, and 85 out of 100 people don’t need it” because their illness won’t become severe.

On March 20, the World Health Organization announced a study involving more than 45 countries to test four potential drugs and drug combinations: remdesivir; chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine; the HIV drugs lopinavir plus ritonavir; and lopinavir and ritonavir in combination with interferon-beta, an anti-inflammatory. Last week, Norway enrolled the first person in the study, which matches patients with one of the four treatments and tracks whether they get better.

“We are in a middle of a global health emergency,” Norweigian Minister of Health Bent Høie said. “We are also in the middle of a global quest for knowledge unlike anything we have ever seen. If you find treatments that are safe and effective, we can save lives and we can protect healthcare professionals and other high-risk groups from developing disease.”

A Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps volunteer and nurse at a COVID-19 testing site last month

A Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps volunteer and nurse at a COVID-19 testing site last month Associated Press/Photo by Tim Tai/The Philadelphia Inquirer

The other outbreak toll

New research shows medical personnel may suffer from more than just exposure to the new coronavirus. A significant number of healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients experience depression, anxiety, and insomnia, according to a study published online on March 23 by the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The research involved more than 1,200 healthcare workers serving in COVID-19 wards in 34 Chinese hospitals. The results showed that about 50 percent reported mild depression, 14 percent had moderate to severe depressive symptoms, 45 percent reported anxiety, and 34 percent suffered from insomnia.

“Across the world, physicians, nurses, and other frontline health care workers do heroic and lifesaving work in stressful settings on a daily basis,” Roy Perlis, a professor of psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School wrote. “However, the toll that providing such care takes must also be recognized.” —J.B.

A Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps volunteer and nurse at a COVID-19 testing site last month

A Philadelphia Medical Reserve Corps volunteer and nurse at a COVID-19 testing site last month Associated Press/Photo by Tim Tai/The Philadelphia Inquirer

Museum of the Bible lessons

The recent discovery that all of the fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls owned by the Museum of the Bible in Washington were modern forgeries sparked criticism of the museum and its founder Steve Green, president of the retail Hobby Lobby chain.

Green issued a statement on March 26 taking responsibility for unwittingly falling prey to unscrupulous artifact dealers. He said he desired to preserve, study, and share cultural property with the world. But when he began acquiring Biblical manuscripts and artifacts in 2009, he knew little about proper collecting practices. Since then, Green said, he has learned established museums, universities, and other institutions have sound protocols for dealing with cultural property and checking its authenticity. “I intend to continue to learn from the collective efforts and wisdom of those institutions,” he said.

The museum plans to deliver about 5,000 papyri fragments and 6,500 clay objects without proved authenticity to officials in Egypt and Iraq. —J.B.

Cause of injury: Boredom

In the quest to find a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19, an enterprising Australian astrophysicist attempted to design a bracelet made of magnets that would set off an alarm if the person wearing it put their hands near their face. When the experiment didn’t work out, Daniel Reardon decided to play around with the magnets and accidentally got some of them stuck up his nose. An attempt to retrieve them with some more magnets did not end well, and a trip to the emergency room followed.

“My partner took me to the hospital that she works in because she wanted all her colleagues to laugh at me,” Reardon told The Guardian. “The doctors thought it was quite funny, making comments like ‘This is an injury due to self-isolation and boredom.’” —J.B.

Julie Borg

Julie is a WORLD contributor who covers science and intelligent design. A clinical psychologist and a World Journalism Institute graduate, Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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